Native American Ecology

Just finished reading 1491, by Charles Mann which has been on my bookshelf for a long time. I was most interested in the third section – on ecology. Mann proposes that the fabled abundance of wildlife that early setters saw (the birds that darkened the sky, the herds that shook the ground) was not a result of careful management by the Indians to maximize the fertility of the land, but rather a symptom of an ecosystem reeling – unbalanced by invasive species. (That turn of phrase is not an implication of the Europeans – microbes played the starring role, as usual). The idea is that millions of Indians had controlled the fauna to protect widespread agriculture. When Old World microbes decimated the Indians, the animal populations boomed.

Oddly, I find this idea tremendously heartening. To understand why you have to know my old frame of reference: Ten million people throughout the Americas = and beautiful, bountiful land. Anything more than that and we are compromising, or really, doing injury. By this figure we are screwed (we have 300 million in the US alone, and each of us has a footprint many times larger than a 15th century American). 1491 gives me hope that we don’t have to make a grim choice between people and nature (meaning: either culling ourselves or creating a form of nature so degraded that no one would want to live in it). Mann’s descriptions of high density populations in the Amazon rainforest terrifies some environmentalists. That sort of thing could convince people that those lands should be populated again. And why not? If we can populate them in a way that improves the soil (as the last “urban” inhabitants did) I’m all for it. I’m for preserving the pleasure humans take in nature, I don’t need to preserve nature empty of humans. If push comes to shove I’d be more than happy to have farms in the ANWR and a city in Yosemite Valley – to spread human warrens through every corner of the earth – if we could do it in such a way that preserved the qualities of those places that give us joy.

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